In 1977, there were 300,000 volunteer firefighters. Today, the number is closer to 50,000.
Recruiting and retaining firefighters and emergency medical service providers is a growing concern in Pennsylvania and lawmakers are looking at ways to address it.
Volunteer ambulance squads have also seen a decline. Even the number of paid career emergency responders are seeing cuts because of municipal funding shortages.
“Sooner or later, somebody’s going to dial 911 and the 911 center is going to dispatch a fire department and nobody’s going to show up,” State Fire Commissioner Edward Mann told the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee on Feb. 28. “That’s where we’re headed.”
The problem may not have hit every community in the state but taken as a whole, Mann said the commonwealth is facing a public safety crisis where this scenario will likely occur more often.
The committee held a morning-long hearing on the dearth of volunteer emergency responders and heard a variety of suggestions for how to reverse this phenomenon ranging from financial incentives to entice volunteers to encouraging fire companies to merge.
Mann and others advocated the state use a toolbox approach to address the problem since one tool that will help in some places may not work as well in others. Also a tool that may help recruit and retain volunteers in one age group may not be as appealing to others.
For younger people to get involved in volunteering for emergency services, perhaps offering some type of college tuition breaks or offering firefigher or EMS courses in high schools. For older and experienced volunteers, offering a local earned income tax break or other types of tax credits, health insurance or pensions could work.
But all of those incentives takes money. That’s where lawmakers have to focus their energies instead of studying the volunteer shortage again, Mann said.
Donald Konkle, a former Harrisburg fire chief and now executive director of the Pennsylvania Fire Emergency Service Institute, said a poll conducted by Penn State found 67 percent of respondents said they could support a half of 1 percent increase in their homeowners and/or auto insurance to support fire and EMS services in their communities.
Another suggestion was to tax fireworks sold to out-of-staters but Rep. Bryan Barbin, D-Cambria, said he doesn’t see such a tax law surviving a court challenge.
Fire company mergers were discussed as a way to reduce the amount of fund-raising that is needed and Mann said that is happening more and more. More fire companies have merged in the last two to three years than in the previous eight to nine years, he said.
The committee’s discussion also delved into why people are leaving the volunteer emergency ranks. Mann mentioned disgust with politics inside the station as one reason and the amount of time devoted to fund-raising as another. William Jenaway, fire chief from King of Prussia, said he suggests fire companies hand off the fund-raising and administrative responsibilities to individuals other than the ones who respond to fires as a way to dealing with that issue.
Jenaway and others said one of the biggest reasons he hears as to why firefighters quit is the 160 hours of training it can entail. Konkle suggested some of that training could be offered online to make it more convenient.
Barbin was troubled that firefighters have to pay for the training. In his view, the best investment the state could make is providing funding to community colleges to offer the emergency services training at no cost.
Rep. Stephen Barrar, R-Delaware, said at the hearing’s outset, it is paramount that the Legislature address this problem before the ranks of volunteer and career emergency responders dwindle even more.
Mann agreed, saying the state is beyond the point of sounding the alarm on this problem. “We’ve burnt the building down. Now we’re all standing around the foundation holding hands trying to figure out what the hell went wrong and that’s where we are.”
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